Recently the Atlantic reported that a tweet posted by a 15-year old high-school student “Stop forcing students to present in front of the class and give them a choice not too”, had gone viral, as had as similar tweet posted earlier this year.
Some students are concerned that forcing them to present in front of their peers, can fuel their anxiety and have long-term harmful effects. Some of the tweets suggested it was a mental health issue, and that people suffering from anxiety should be given alternatives. They also say that students are being unfairly penalised by receiving poor grades for presenting badly when their content is good.
People who are nervous about public speaking are sometimes put off doing public speaking courses because they don’t want to do impromptu speaking. Impromptu speaking, or table topics as it is known in Toastmasters, requires the participant to respond to random topics with no preparation. For example, you might be asked “what is the best advice you have ever had?” or “if you could time travel, what year would you chose to travel to?” Or you might be asked to give your opinion on a topical issue such as, “should we ban plastic water bottles?”.
In 2015, Victoria University of Wellington did an Employability Skills survey to find out what employers are looking for in their graduates, apart from a degree of course! Read Survey. The survey found that the number one attribute (also known as ‘soft skill’) that employers want from graduates is work ethic while verbal communication skills are number two. They rank ahead of analytical and critical thinking (number four) and well ahead of written communication skills (number eight).
Other surveys and experts in New Zealand and overseas have found similar results.
Absolute IT, a New Zealand IT recruitment agency quotes an Absolute IT Job Seeker Insight report which found that tech professionals rate communication skills as the most important skill to get ahead in the workplace.
Last time I wrote about feeling uncomfortable when we talk about something we don’t fully understand or believe in. This time I want to talk about the opposite. The secret to overcoming a fear of public speaking can be to find something important to say.
As I was thinking about writing this article I saw the following comment posted on social media from Emma Wright who is a member of the WE Network which I have just joined.
“I put on my first parent seminar this week. I was so terrified I almost cancelled! But I got over myself because I know parents are a bit desperate about how to help their boys and girls build a strong, positive body image (in our weight-obsessed culture).”
When I ask a group of people if they have ever had to talk to a group about something they didn’t understand or were not convinced about themselves I usually get a lot of nods. Then I ask them how they felt about it. They say things like ‘I felt uncomfortable.’ ‘I felt like a fraud.’ ‘I felt like people were going to challenge me and I wouldn’t be able to respond.’ ‘I was scared I would get found out.’
Perhaps you are a team leader or mid-level manager and you work for a company who has just adopted a new vision and values. You have heard senior management explain it and put a great story around it and now it’s your turn to present it to your team. Suddenly you feel very uncomfortable. How are you going to explain it when you still have lots of questions yourself? Fearing your content is not helpful and can really undermine your confidence.
Wouldn’t it be great to be able to stand in front of an audience and feel calm? Actually, no! While it might be nice to feel calm, the reality is that you generally perform better when you are a bit nervous.
Imagine you are an Olympic athlete turning up to the start of a race. Do you think that you will feel calm? Of course not. You will be very nervous and rightly so. Once more those nerves will serve you well as they mean your body is producing adrenalin that will make you run faster.
When it comes to public speaking something similar applies. If you are calm the chances are that you will come across as laid back but not particularly effective or dynamic. However, with presenting, being very nervous doesn’t serve you well either. When you start to show visible signs of fear such as shaking, sweating, or going red, you become focused on what is happening to you rather than what you are saying, to the detriment of your performance.
What you want is to hit that sweet spot, where a bit of nervousness gives you optimal performance. Remember that those nerves are a sign that your body is preparing to perform. You want enough adrenalin to enhance your performance but not so much that it starts to undermine it.
Many years ago, I did a public speaking course through work. At the end of the course we each gave a speech which was filmed. We were given the video to review in our own time. I was really unhappy with my speech because at one point I lost my way and hesitated for what felt like an eternity.
Body language expert Mark Bowden, in his book “Winning Body Language” describes a man who came to him for help because he broke out in hives every time he presented. Mark urged him to accept his fear as the first step forward. Bowden says, “In just about all cases of stage fright, battling the fear is never the answer”.
I strongly believe that anyone can manage their nerves and become a better public speaker with the right support.